Graham Greene on Real Christianity

Henry Fonda in The Fugitive (The Power and the Glory)


I applaud Washington Post’s conservative Michael Gerson, architect of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” for a recent column using Graham Greene to critique Trump-supporting rightwing evangelicals. Applying Greene’s Power and Glory, Gerson essentially accuses these so-called Christians of opting for piety over love.

Since Graham’s distinction may be unclear to many, I’ll let Gerson unpack it. Like much of Graham’s fiction, Power and Glory features a flawed man wrestling with deep moral and religious issues. The protagonist is an

unnamed “whiskey priest” who is executed by an anticlerical Mexican government in the 1930s. The priest had fathered an illegitimate child and dies convinced of his own lust, pride, cowardice and failure. But he actually walks the stations of his own cross like a saint and dies a martyr.

At one point in Greene’s book, Gerson observes,

the priest considers the depth of his love for his daughter. “That was the difference, he had always known, between his faith and theirs, the political leaders of the people who cared only for things like the state, the republic: this child was more important than a whole continent.”

There’s no doubt that Trump cares more for the state than for children, although in his case he sees the state as himself. (“L’état, c’est moi,” Louis XIV famously declared.) It’s bad enough that Trump is deliberately adopting cruel measures to deal with asylum seekers, Gerson writes. Even more scandalous is his attempt to change the very character of our country:

Trump is trying to make desperate, suffering people the villains of our national story. He compares refugees fleeing repression and violence to snakes. He smears them as rapists and invaders. In his warped moral vision, mercy is a form of national weakness. Kindness and respect are crimes against the state. His approach to nationalism involves slander against the voiceless. It demands further oppression of the oppressed. Trump wants to change not just the policy of our government, but also the character of our country, into something hard, and dark, and dishonorable, and pitiless.

So how are evangelical Trump enthusiasts responding? They are putting institutional imperatives ahead of Jesus’s commandments. Gerson first spells out how they should respond:

This is surely the kind of thing that people of faith exist to oppose. Christians in particular worship a God who puts on the cloak of human need and weakness. A refugee God. A scarred God. A God sacrificed to political necessity, in front of a crowd claiming to serve justice and law.

What does “God is love” mean if it does not mean love for refugees? What does the “image of God” indicate if we refuse to see it in the wandering poor?

And now for their actual response:

And what is the response of Trump’s evangelical Christian supporters — who have enough standing to demand a meeting — when he organizes his political movement around disdain for the dispossessed? Silence. Or support. Or enthusiastic support.

Greene weighs in on such a choice:

“God might forgive cowardice and passion,” writes Greene, “but was it possible to forgive the habit of piety? . . . Salvation could strike like lightning at the evil heart, but the habit of piety excluded everything but the evening prayer and the Guild meeting.”

As blogger Ethan Richardson explains it, piety for Graham is “human self-sufficiency: the complacency that says No to the eternal Yes of the Gospel.” Our pious see themselves as superior to those at the border, whom they consider beneath their notice.

Gerson concludes by explaining why Christians must be implacable in their resistance to the implacable Trump:

Because all are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights. Because cruelty without opposition gains momentum. Because a refugee child is more important than a whole continent.

Or as Jesus would put it (Mark 8:36), “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

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